Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 1999
You know you are in for it when the third person credited on the program is the Lamentation Director. Shakespeare charges King Richard III of England (lived 1452-1485, reigned 1483-1485) with the murder of most of the House of York on his way to the throne. History claims that this view of the hunchback King was popularized by the Tudor monarchy of Shakespeare’s day, the one which came to power by Richard’s defeat and death. Remember that Shkeapeare’s play was probably first performed around 1593, a mere 110 years after Richard ascended the throne.
But the truth was not what Shakespeare was after. He was after a good play which would please the government in power. And he got it. “King Richard III” is the most frequently performed of all of Shakesapeare’s history plays. For 400 years audiences have been drawn with gory fascination to Shakespeare’s Richard, a deformed villian who gets what he wants at any cost. “I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard proclaims in his first soliliquy.
Jonathan Epstein, who recently received his second Elliot Norton Award for Best Actor in a Large Company, takes on the title role in the Shakespeare & Company production at the new Duffin Theatre in Lenox. Dressed all in black, with a hump on one shoulder and the use of two walking sticks Epstein’s Richard moves with more grace and speed through the multi-level set than any of his “able-bodied” comrades. Set designer Miguel Romero has built a large spiderweb made of rope across the back of his large set, and Epstein occasionally swings himself up into the web, reinforcing Shakespeare’s many references to Richard as a “bottled spider” setting his web for all who cross his path.
Unless you are a serious student of British history, you will not begin to unravel the plot. Basically, Richard is a younger son, not in direct line to the throne, so in order to acheive the crown he must eliminate all the heirs who stand in his way. This is a bloody and treasonous business, and, as is inevitable, one who murders his way to the crown is himself murdered. Richard reigned over England for only two years.
Tina Packer, director of this production and Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Company, has greatly emphasized and restored the role of the women in “Richard III”. In this production the women form the one strong voice of opposition to Richard as they watch their brothers, sons, fathers, husbands, and uncles taken from them one by one. This is where that Lamentation Director comes in.
With the assistance of Kimberly White, Packer has revived ancient forms of lamentation and keening among the female characters. I must say that it looks and sounds painful – long wailing notes accompanied by breast beating and hair pulling. The sound of a woman keening is a primoridal noise, and Packer and White use it to accompany every death. In other words, they use it a lot! And it works.
Of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies “Richard III” most closely resembles ancient Greek tragedy. Richard’s mother uttered a line which immediately reminded me of a line in the “Hecuba” produced by the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer. Packer uses her women very much like a Greek chorus, and White indicates in her program notes on lamentation that, when decomcratic Greece banned public lamentation, the theatrical chorus took over as an approved method of expressing sorrow.
If you are in the mood for much murder in Elizabethan English, then this is a fine production of a long and tortured narrative. Epstein is solid throughout, never shining brilliantly, but always steering a steady course towards Richard’s destruction. The new Duffin Theatre on the campus of Lenox High School is a magnificent and comfortable space, the latter being essential to the enjoyment of a play as long as “Richard III” The last time I saw it I sat on a metal folding chair for nearly four hours and I enjoyed the whole thing much less!
“King Richard III”, produced by Shakespeare & Company, runs through August 1 at the new Duffin Theatre on the campus of Lenox Memorial Middle/High School at 197 East Street. The show runs three hours and twenty mintues with one intermission. For tickets and information, call the box office at 413-637-3353.